PITTSBURGH - The Washington Capitals probably knew deep down they wouldn't win both games in Pittsburgh. That would have been too much to ask, to shut down Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for two nights on their home ice with the Penguins' season hanging on every shift.
Now that they've lost one - a 3-2 overtime defeat in Game 3 - the Capitals have put themselves in danger of losing two and of making it a brand new series.
Of reviving those bad old days of previous series squandered to Pittsburgh, long before Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Simeon Varlamov wore Washington jerseys.
Win Game 4 on Friday night, and these Capitals won't have to hear about some of the worst moments in franchise history. They'll be up 3-1, with as many as three chances to close out the series and advance to the conference finals.
Lose, however, and the Capitals will find themselves opposing not only the determined Penguins, but those haunting memories of all those past Washington teams that were positioned to knock out Pittsburgh but couldn't do it.
1992: Caps up 2-0, Penguins win 4-3. 1995: Caps up 3-1, Penguins win 4-3. 1996: Caps up 2-0, Penguins win 4-2.
Here we go again?
Game 4 will determine that.
"One goal, one shot," coach Bruce Boudreau said Thursday, referring to how close the Capitals are to being up 3-0.
But they're not.
An energized Evgeni Malkin, barely noticeable in the first two games, and a 7-2 power plays advantage that kept Ovechkin out of the offence for long stretches revived the Penguins on Wednesday night.
Pittsburgh is convinced it has the better team, despite Washington's series lead.
"I think we've out-chanced them over the three games," Crosby said, referring to Pittsburgh edges of 114-82 in shots and 17-9 in power plays.
"It doesn't matter, because we're down 2-1. But the belief in what we need to do is there, and we're seeing some good results. We're confident if we play this way, we're going to give ourselves a good chance."
The Capitals' response: We're up, not them.
"They can think what they want to think," Boudreau said. "It's not about (outplaying a team) ... it's about scoring at the right time, it's about making the big save, it's about coming through in the clutch. ... I'd much rather be where I am right now than where they are."
What perplexed the Capitals was the huge disparity in power plays, which robbed Washington of the momentum it generated while taking a 1-0 lead in the first period and controlling the first 10 minutes.
Ovechkin, dominant in the first two games with four goals, scored with less than two minutes gone but mostly lacked the open ice and numerous scoring chances he had in Washington.
"It seems like he maybe didn't have as much time with the puck, (someone) was always watching him, around him, so that's a big help when he doesn't have that time," said Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
While Malkin scored only once, a go-ahead goal in the third period, he was an Ovechkin-like force with nine shots.
Malkin, the NHL scoring champion, also flashed a physical side by running over Varlamov, the rookie goalie who gave up three goals but probably couldn't have played much better while making 39 saves.
"I don't think he was bad the first two games, they (Malkin's shots) just didn't end up in the net," said Kris Letang, whose first career playoff goal won it at 11:23 of overtime.
"He was a totally different player. He's always going to put a lot of pressure on himself, Sid does the same thing, and that's why these guys are so good."
Ovechkin understands the Capitals need him on offence more to win Game 4.
"We do have to play better and play differently," he said. "We had only six scoring chances, and it was all about the first period. We can't play like that, it's not our game.
"We had too many penalties, and we can't take too many penalties. It's better to play offensively than to play defensively."
No doubt it would help the Capitals if Semin experiences a Malkin-like resurgence in Game 4. Semin had 34 goals and 79 points during the season, but has no goals and is a minus-2 in the series.
"Still, we didn't play our best game (in Game 3), and we went to overtime. It shows a lot and means a lot to us," Ovechkin said. "Tomorrow (Friday) is going to be a different game, it's going to be a better game for us, for sure."